The Army couldn't find on its books 39 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that are actually out there flying, and the Air Force had no listings for 478 buildings, the Pentagon's comptroller told Congress on Wednesday in pressing for the completion this year of a first-ever Defense Department audit.
To get a grip on waste, and finally account for taxpayer dollars, the military simply has to know how much it has and how much is being spent on it, down to boots and rifles as well as big-ticket items, Comptroller David Norquist said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
To illustrate the problem, Norquist said that in the run-up to the promised audit this year, "The Army found 39 Black Hawk helicopters that had not been properly recorded in its property system.
"The Air Force identified 478 buildings and structures at 12 installations that were not in its real property system," he said.
In addition, the service didn't know how many of its airmen were on four-year contracts, and how many were on six-year contracts, he added.
Although the DoD has been under federal mandate for more than two decades to produce an audit, it's never happened.
But Norquist declared to the committee, "We have started the audit. This is the first-time, full financial statement audit" of the DoD ever conducted.
He said that, by this summer, about 1,200 auditors -- some in-house and some contractors -- will be out in the field doing the counting worldwide at a cost of nearly $1 billion.
About $367 million will be spent on the audit process itself, he said, making a lowball estimate that problems uncovered by the audit would cost at least $551 million to fix.
The $551 million figure was arrived at "from talking to the services about what funding they have planned for this year and whether they have it in the budget to address these requirements," Norquist said.
Members of the committee from both sides of the aisle gave Norquist encouragement mixed with skepticism that he would actually be able finish the unprecedented audit.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, likened the task to that of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down every time he neared the top.
On the Army's 39 missing Black Hawks, Conaway said he assumed that "the pilots flying them knew they were there."
Yes, they did, Norquist said. "Those had been delivered by the vendor but hadn't been reported in the property system," he explained.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee chairman, noted that the DoD has been promising an audit since 1990. "This issue is important" and getting it done is crucial for the warfighter, he said.
"Members of this committee hear evidence every week that we are not providing our military with the funding they need to carry out the missions they are assigned," he said.
"We must spend more," Thornberry said, and a reliable audit would cut the waste from the funding provided.
"It seems to me that an essential requirement of spending money smarter is knowing with certainty how the money is spent," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
"I know it's a lot of money, I know it's a big bureaucracy, I know there's a lot going on, but we ought to be able to do an audit that tells us where we're spending the money. It's just that simple," Smith said.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, cautioned Norquist that he'd been hearing promises of a DoD audit for 22 years.
"I'll never forget Rumsfeld," Jones said of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld pledged that he would "account for every dollar. He might've meant well, but it never happened, obviously," Jones said.
This time it will be different, Norquist pledged to the committee. He said that President Donald Trump has "embraced the audit," and he also has the full backing of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
Still, there is the unhappy precedent of the Marine Corps, which prematurely patted itself on the back in 2013 after completing what it claimed to be the first limited financial audit conducted by one of the services.
The DoD's Office of the Inspector General initially agreed.
Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was ecstatic and set up a ceremony in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes to present the assistant commandant with a massive framed display honoring the milestone.
"I know that it might seem a bit unusual to be in the Hall of Heroes to honor a bookkeeping accomplishment but, damn, this is an accomplishment," Hagel said.
However, in 2015, the IG's office reversed course on the Corps' accounting. It revoked the audit clean bill of health and said the service had failed to include accounts within the Defense Finance and Accounting Service that had not been properly assessed.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.